Times have changed - students, teachers and families are feeling increasingly vulnerable when they walk into schools. In the last five years, there have been nearly 300 school shootings. Many possible solutions to this threat are currently being batted about in town halls and the halls of congress, high schools and homes. Armed intruder, forced evacuation and active shooter drills are revised and practiced more often than fire drills. Cell phones are purchased for younger and younger children as a means of keeping connected during the day. No longer are school personnel trusted with even the task of calling home. Parents are jotting down what their off-spring wear as they climb on the bus in hopes of better identifying them in the news helicopter footage of campus evacuations. And sales of bullet-proof backpacks are keeping what used to be fringe, novelty companies’ products in high demand. They are not just marketing to military contractors and preppers but to increasingly nervous parents. But is this enough to create both safety and security?
Back in the day, saying that your child was in school followed with a parent’s audible sigh. And with good reason - we were comforted and put at ease with the confidence of knowing our children were not on the streets or at home alone. They were safe and secure in their homerooms. But in the last decade, life at school has definitely changed for most communities.
Violent events on school campuses have made safety and security a priority. There is no arguing that we all value our children and need things to change. But clarifying where safety comes from and who is responsible for security need critical delineations in the process of change because different characters (stakeholders) are equipped to address each, very distinct issue.
Safety is not about metal detectors, double-lock doors or emergency vaults constructed in the corners of classrooms. It is not about armed guards and metal detectors. Those are all security measures. Security is provided by external factors that enhance physical protection, limit accessibility and lessen threats. School security is a response to a real or potential danger. Security is the job of the adults, institutions and households. It makes sense that systems with clear laws and corresponding consequences are in place to create security in schools. Legislators can be guided by the wisdom of school and law enforcement professionals to shape security protocols.
Safety on the other hand develops within. It stems from an inner sense of stability, efficacy and trust in oneself, as well as in the care of others. Safety grows in a person, a family, a peer group or a classroom. It develops when we learn, through repeated experience, to trust information we detect through our own senses. With that learned ability, we come to trust our own instincts and act through our personal choices. A key component of feeling safe is generated by practicing self-care, which eventually shifts to care within the many social groups in which we belong.
Safety is a preventative measure. It addresses the causes that can lead to the need for security. Inner safety can lead to outer expressions of empathy, healthier social interactions and healing. These in turn lead to inclusion, collaboration, and a sense of peace, which lead to real changes in kids, groups and schools. Bullying is reduced. Isolation and the resulting depression can be lessened. Competition can become a healthy motivator instead of a harmful divider. Marginalization and incidents of violence become less prevalent. Hearts, minds and behaviors shift as safety and other core issues are addressed.
Teachers need tools and support to create this type of safe learning environment, one built on a culture of trust. Daily, teachers model safe behavior by: pausing to notice the moment, attending to one thing at a time, recognizing their role in setting the tone, adjusting to diverse (and often adverse) situations, openly caring for others, knowing when they need their own time-out, addressing bullying consistently and speaking directly about safety as a non-negotiable in their classrooms.
Research shows that social and emotional skills around safety can be taught, learned and practiced in our schools. It starts with the teacher and builds from there. Teachers are uniquely equipped to meet students where they are and guide them toward new skills. Specifically taught curriculum can lead students to notice what they need, encourage them to speak up and support them to create safety for themselves and their peers.
Security can and should be legislated and enforced from the outside in response to external threats. Safety though, needs to be enhanced from the inside - in teachers, in classrooms and in young people as a prevention. Social emotional learning, self-awareness, and regulation, mindfulness and trauma-informed approaches should be increasingly taught and reinforced in schools. Inner safety is at least as important as security and potentially, in the long run, even more critical.
Wynne Kinder M.Ed.
Teacher, trainer and author at Wellness Works in Schools (Peace Work, Mindful Moods & Mindful Choices) and co-creator of mindfulness content at GoNoodle.com.